A schepen (pl. schepenen) is a municipal office in Dutch-speaking countries. It has been replaced by the wethouder in the Netherlands itself but continues to be used in Belgium. Depending on the context, it may be roughly translated as an alderman, councillor, or magistrate.
The Dutch word schepen has its origins in the Old Saxon word scepino (meaning "judge") and is related to the German word Schöffe ("lay magistrate"). The word made its way into early Medieval Latin as scabinus in France.
Originally, the word referred to member of a council of "deciders" – literally, "judgment finders" (oordeelvinders) – that sat at a mandatory public assembly called a ding (or "thing" in English). Their judgments originally required ratification by a majority of the people present. Later, mandatory attendance (dingplicht) and ratification were no longer required.
In Flanders, the term schepen is the Dutch term used for a town alderman who serves on the executive board in the municipal government. Though there is no direct English cognate, the Dutch term schepen is generally translated into English as "alderman", "municipal councillor" or "town councillor".
Schepen has a slightly different meaning depending on whether the term is used in a historic context or in a modern political context.
- In the historic context, from the post-Roman era until the 19th century, the term refers to the old literal meaning of "judgment finders" (oordeelvinders) – and they sat originally a mandatory public assembly called the Vierschaar, a often a roofless building in which 4 benches were installed along the 4 walls. Later the name of the institute of the council of Aldermen became the Schepenbank. The Schepenen both legislated (made laws), ratified treaties and acted as judges.
- In the modern context the term schepen is usually translated to "alderman" but that translation doesn't really adequately express the idea that the schepenen serve together with the burgomaster as the executive power of the municipal government and not just an elected councilor.
Each Flemish municipality has an elected town council. During the first meeting of a newly elected town council, council members vote by secret ballot to elect the schepenen. An absolute majority (more than half the votes) is required for a schepen to be voted in. Once elected, the schepenen serve with the mayor on an executive board charged with the day-to-day management of town and city affairs. The executive board is referred to in Dutch as the "college van burgemeester en schepenen".
Schepenen are often assigned portfolio areas such as culture, education or city planning. They have several executive responsibilities relating to their portfolios and thus assist the mayor in governing the town or city.
The total number of schepenen in a town depends on its population. A city like Antwerp has ten; whereas Herstappe, the smallest community in Belgium, has only two. Since a schepen is also an ordinary alderman or town councillor, he or she must be re-elected to remain in the office of schepen. Since 2006, Belgian citizenship has not been a requirement for the position.
Historically, schepenen had administrative and judicial duties in a Dutch seigneury (heerlijkheid). When acting in an administrative capacity, a schepen was similar to an alderman or town councillor, and is usually referred to in that way in English.
When acting in a judicial capacity, the schepenen were often referred to as the schepenbank. One of the functions of the schepenbank was to pass judgment on criminals, thereby functioning as a jury or magistrates' bench. As a result, the word schepen is often translated into English as "magistrate" in this Dutch historical context.
The phrase schout en schepenen appears in many legal documents prior to the Napoleonic period, including the civil register of marriages. This phrase was used in both administrative and judicial contexts. If they were acting in an administrative capacity, schout en schepenen may be expressed in English as "the mayor and aldermen" (or a similar phrase like "the mayor and councillors"). If they were acting in a judicial capacity, schout en schepenen may be expressed in English as "magistrate's court" (or a similar phrase like "magistrates' bench" or "aldermen's court").
The office of schepen was dissolved by the Napoleonic reforms at the end of the Ancien Régime.